For more than four years, Wyatt Cenac held one of the most coveted jobs in American comedy, serving as a writer and on-air contributor for “The Daily Show.” But in 2012, Cenac quit that job, even though he had no new gig lined up to replace it. On a recent episode of Marc Maron’s “WTF” poodcast, Cenac revealed that his departure was the product of an emotionally traumatizing fight he’d had with Jon Stewart, over whether or not one of the host’s jokes was racially insensitive.
In 2011, African-American pizza magnate Herman Cain was – briefly – a leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination. Among Cain’s signature policies was a proposal for all congressional bills to be limited to three pages. On “The Daily Show,” Stewart mocked the anti-intellectualism of Cain’s proposal by impersonating the candidate, saying in an approximation of Cain’s own loud, affectedly southern voice, “Bills will be three pages! If I am president, treaties will have to fit on the back of a cereal box! From now on, the State of the Union address will be delivered in the form of a fortune cookie! I am Herman Cain, and I do not like to read.”
Cenac told Maron that the bit made him cringe.
“I don’t think this is from a malicious place, but I think this is from a naïve, ignorant place,” Cenac said he remembered remembered thinking, when he first watched the segment.
“I represent my community, I represent my people,” Cenac continued. “I gotta be honest if something seems questionable, because if not, then I don’t want to be in a position where I am being untrue not just to myself but to my culture, because that’s exploitative.”
In a writer’s meeting, Cenac told Stewart that the voice reminded him of Kingfish, an African-American caricature from the show “Amos ‘n’ Andy.” According to Cenac, Stewart then “exploded.”
“He got incredibly defensive. I remember he was like, ‘What are you trying to say? There’s a tone in your voice.’ I was like, ‘There’s no tone. It bothered me. It sounded like Kingfish.’ And then he got upset. And he stood up and he was just like, ‘F— off. I’m done with you.’ And he just started screaming that to me. And he screamed it a few times. ‘F— off! I’m done with you.’ And he stormed out. And I didn’t know if I had been fired.”
Spokespeople for “The Daily Show” did not immediately respond to msnbc’s request for comment.
Stewart would later apologize for yelling at Cenac, but maintained his belief that the voice was an exaggeration of Cain’s, and not a racist caricature, a position shared by at least some black commentators at the time.
Cenac said the dispute devastated him. The comedian told Maron that his father was murdered when he was very young, and that the loss left him looking for substitute father figures for the rest of his life. Cenac said he had hoped that Stewart might serve as a personal mentor. But the host kept his relationship with the show’s writers strictly, coldly professional, according to Cenac, who said the shouting match was the first real conversation the two had ever had.
“It’s a sobering moment when you see that this person you’ve turned into a hero is just a mortal,” he said of the encounter.
Cenac’s disappointment with Stewart was exacerbated by the sense of isolation that came with always being the only African-American in the writer’s room. After the fight, Cenac walked to the baseball field across from the studio and broke down.
“I was shaking, and I just sat there by myself on the bleachers and f—— cried. And it’s a sad thing. That’s how I feel. That’s how I feel in this job. I feel alone,” he said.
He stayed on the show for a year after the incident but never stopped feeling sad and uncomfortable with what had happened.
When Stewart announced his retirement, Cenac sent him an email offering his congratulations, and thanked Stewart for giving the opportunity to contribute to the show.
“He wrote back. And it seemed like a nice fence-mending,” Cenac said. “We tossed back and forth a joke about football.”
Recently, Cenac received an invitation to appear on Stewart’s final episode as host of “The Daily Show,” which will air on August 6. Cenac told Maron that he didn’t want to attend because he and Stewart had never resolved what had happened between them.
He ended up writing Stewart a long email, laying out all his feelings on the fight and the tense year that followed.
“He thought that fight we got into was just two people having an argument. And so the emotion of it, he never really saw,” Cenac said. “He apologized as much as he could, for if I felt hurt and he said, ‘I’d love for you to be at the last show because I helped to build this thing’ … And I appreciated that. I still don’t know if I’m going to show up.”